World Cup final set to break TV records – no other single sporting event comes close


Gianni Infantino has spent the past year telling anyone who would listen that this will be the biggest World Cup FIFA has staged and Sunday’s final is expected to bring the confirmation.

For all the controversies that have accompanied the tournament staged in Qatar, it is forecast that a record-breaking audience will watch Argentina face France at the Lusail Stadium.

Flick on the television or follow a stream and you will be one of more than a billion viewers to do so. FIFA will hope the average audience, those committed to watching the majority of the game, tops the 562 million that watched the 2014 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina. That would set a new high as the biggest single sporting event in TV history.

Infantino has already made it clear there has never been interest in the World Cup like there has been in the past four weeks.

The FIFA president claimed last week that two billion people had watched those absorbing group stages, ensuring his targets for the entire tournament to be watched by five billion people are on course. FIFA said the 2018 World Cup, held in Russia, was watched by a cumulative audience of 3.57 billion. Or, put another way, more than half of the global population aged four and over watched at least one minute of one of its 64 games.

The World Cup has a global appeal that other sporting events cannot match (Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

There can be no real certainty when measuring international TV markets and even less prospect of FIFA downplaying the numbers it publishes in its Global Broadcast and Audience Summary, but there is no one questioning that this Sunday will be the biggest of the big sporting moments in TV history.

This is what the World Cup and, particularly its final, has become over time: a blockbuster event not to be missed no matter where on the earth you might happen to be.

Rights holders run into the hundreds, with coverage spanning over 450 channels worldwide. The 2018 final was down on 2014, with France against Croatia offering less glamour to the floating fans, but be sure that 2022 will be up with Lionel Messi pitted against Kylian Mbappe. It is the last chapter FIFA will have pined for.

Perhaps only the summer Olympics is comparable for international appeal but that is a machine of a hundred moving parts. The men’s 100-metre sprint is considered its glitzy pinnacle for interest levels but the World Cup final is on another level. Each of the 64 games played in Qatar will be watched, on average, by an international TV audience three times the entire population of the UK.

“The World Cup is very simple,” says Paolo Pescatore, a technology and media analyst at PP Foresight. “It’s all football, 32 teams and someone’s got to win the prize. It’s the perfect TV package.

“The next thing close on a global scale would be the Olympics but that’s a culmination of sports, with a lot of them not attracting a big audience.

“What football has is an attachment to the stories, with people following those stories behind the individuals. It’s the players, the coaches, the teams, the journeys they’ve all been on. The superstars play a big part in that.

“If you look at the Olympics in comparison, those individuals don’t get the same recognition or the same following as the footballers until they’ve actually made it. Those footballers who reach the top offer key ingredients for a successful product: failure, success, elation, heartbreak, heroes and villains, celebrities and sex appeal. It’s talked about day in and day out around the world. It draws an audience like no other sport.”

And to FIFA that means big business. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, there are broadcast deals in place to rake in TV revenues that amounted to around half of the £5.2billion ($6.4bn) income when last staging a World Cup in 2018. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and selling it off for 2022 might end up being worth close to £3bn to FIFA in TV revenue alone.

“From my perspective, it’s clearly the biggest (TV event),” adds Pescatore. “The ingredients of this World Cup especially meant it was always going to break the record. There’s been enormous publicity around it, it’s a winter World Cup and a lot of people are watching it. Everyone has talked about this for weeks and months ahead of it starting.

“That’s where we’re going with sport and any kind of programming — it’s about the engagement you drive beyond the actual event. Something that will make sure people want to watch the next one.”

So, what can truly rival a World Cup final’s audience? Nothing, really. UEFA has said that 328 million watched last summer’s Euro 2020 final between England and Italy at Wembley, broadly on par with record levels set at Euro 2016. Interest outside of Europe is there but not nearly as much as at the World Cup.

UEFA’s other big prize does not struggle for numbers, either. An end-of-season report on the Champions League said an average of 110 million had watched the Paris final between Real Madrid and Liverpool, a showpiece marred by police and ticketing issues in the French capital. That represented a significant rise from 85 million 12 months previously.

Audience figures for the big Premier League games are not as easily accessed. Domestic audiences in the UK can hit around the 3 million mark but figures for overseas viewership are not published. Estimates suggest a high-profile fixture, such as Manchester City versus Liverpool, might draw in the region of 20 million viewers.

The biggest club football fixture is traditionally Barcelona against Real Madrid, a match that has enormous appeal in Latin America. It is thought average viewers range between 80 and 100 million, with La Liga optimistically claiming that as many as 650 million see some portion of the game in 185 different countries.

In the US, the Super Bowl stands unrivalled. It has been reported that 112 million people watched the Los Angeles Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals at Super Bowl LVI in February, the highest figure in five years. That accounts for the US audience, but the overseas viewership, which is reliant on estimates, is thought to be about half of that figure.

The NBA’s record, meanwhile, is far more modest. Close to 36 million are said to have watched Game 6 of the 1998 finals between Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, a thrilling game made iconic by Michael Jordan’s late winning jump shot.

There are claims the Tour de France’s cumulative audience can run into the billions but, in a market notoriously difficult to examine with perfect clarity, perhaps only the Beijing Olympics can be considered a historical rival to the World Cup. Nielsen, a leader in audience measurement, said 4.7 billion people had watched China’s big moment unfold.

“Nothing comes close to the World Cup final for global appeal,” says Ben McMurray, senior analyst at Ampere Analysis. “The Olympics obviously brings in a lot of interest but it’s a different style, with different sports going on with constant coverage. The sense of investment just isn’t the same with the Olympics.

“At the World Cup, you have people engaged from the beginning of the tournament, right up to the final. It’s the biggest competition in the biggest sport, with the final being the pinnacle of it all. You can’t get any more of a highlight reel moment.”

The Super Bowl, the crown jewel of the US sports market, cannot hope to generate the same interest levels, no matter the teams competing.

“The Super Bowl exceeds (a World Cup final) in America comfortably,” adds McMurray. “It tends to have around the 100 million mark in the US.

“If you look at the France vs Croatia final, around 20 million viewers were from France or Croatia. So up against the final 517 million average viewership, that’s less than five per cent of the audience coming from the countries involved.

“I’m sure the Super Bowl’s audience would have somewhere around the 70 per cent mark of its audience from the US. It has domestic appeal but not so much the global appeal.”

A World Cup’s beauty is also in its simplicity. FIFA will tinker with that before 2026 but this year, 64 games are being squeezed into 29 days to crown an eventual winner.

Under president Gianni Infantino, FIFA has expanded the World Cup and the 2026 edition will feature more teams than ever before (Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

“By happy accident, the nature of a game of football, with two halves of 45 minutes, is absolutely perfect as a televisual spectacle,” says Tim Crow, a sports marketing expert. “And that’s absolutely key to football’s appeal.

“The parallel is a movie. They’re, generally speaking, around 90 minutes. That’s the perfect attention span in terms of an event.

“The World Cup generates eyeballs like nothing else. That’s why broadcasters see it as such a big prize. It’s the global game, played out on a global stage. So, it’s huge financially.”

The question FIFA will ask themselves is where this behemoth goes next. The World Cup preaches to the converted in Europe and South America but in the past three decades, interest levels have increased across Asia, Africa and North America — tellingly, the 2026 tournament will be staged in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

This has been the first World Cup to genuinely embrace the streaming age. Record numbers have watched events from Qatar without the need for a TV, with FIFA+, the governing body’s streaming service, broadcasting live games to users in Brazil. Accessibility is undoubtedly on the rise, opening up the World Cup to even greater audiences.

“The early signs suggest, looking at the UK with BBC and ITV, that viewer numbers are higher and there are a lot more people streaming because of the times of games,” says Pescatore.

“All roads seem to suggest that this World Cup is going to break previous records in terms of viewer numbers but also the number of people accessing the World Cup through other platforms, rather than just TV.

“This is where FIFA and other bodies will be looking very closely at the viewer data, by country and device network. That’ll give them a basis for how they then go out and market for tender for future events.

“The million-dollar question I keep getting asked is where we’re going long term. FIFA is in a unique position where its biggest event takes place every four years and they’ve launched this app. If they really wanted to, they could say the next World Cup all comes through FIFA+.

“You’d see a drop-off but people wouldn’t ignore it. They’d know every single user in every single country on all the different devices and know exactly who they were marketing to. Watch a game on BBC or ITV and they don’t know who you are. That’s the value for companies that are streaming.”

The pace of technological developments will dictate just how quickly FIFA rolls out its services, but the past few weeks have been a timely reminder they already have a captive audience watching a World Cup’s every move.

(Top photo: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)


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